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UNC-Chapel Hill students mourn deaths, turn attention to improving mental health services

Students placed several chairs on the brick pavement at The Pit outside the Student Union at UNC-Chapel Hill to represent members of the campus community who died by suicide on campus this semester. The chairs are covered in bright sticky notes with messages.

If you or someone you know is in crisis call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

“You have purpose. You deserve to be here. You are loved,” first-year student Maddi Austin reads aloud.

Students like her stop as they pass by. They write more messages on the ground in chalk.

“Seeing all the messages on the chairs, the flowers, you can't help but want to add to it, to encourage the positivity,” Austin said.

The university canceled classes Tuesday for a “Wellness Day,” after news broke about one suicide death and another attempt last weekend. On the day off, some students handed out baked goods and notes of encouragement. One man led yoga on the quad. There were emotional support animals on-hand for students to pet.

Austin says this week has been different on campus. Quieter, sad, but also kinder.

“I've just been reminded that I need to check up more on my friends. I need to ask them, ‘How are you doing? Really? Like, how are you really doing?’” Austin said.

Austin says she has struggled with her own mental health this semester and sought help from the university's Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS. She's been going to brief therapy sessions there about every other week.

When she heard about the deaths, she felt that CAPS could be doing more to reach students, and that students could do more to support one other.

“You think, what could we have done? What could have prevented this?” Austin said.

Over the weekend as many students learned about the deaths on Yik Yak or from the student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel, Austin started tossing around the idea of holding a protest to call for more funding for the university's mental health services.

“A silent protest, because you know, a lot of people suffer through this in silence,” Austin explained.

She posted the idea on social media, and other students reached out with personal stories and offers to help. Her fellow student Yakob Lemma is now helping plan the demonstration for Friday, Oct. 29.

Along with other students who volunteered to help, they’re working on a list of demands. In addition to promoting a petition for increased funding to CAPS, they are calling for long-term therapy options on campus and for more wellness days to be built into future school calendars.

“The reason why we're fighting for this big cause ... is the more we put into CAPS, the more we're invested into our students,” Lemma said.

Austin and Lemma feel there is a need for faculty to receive mental health training so they know how to respond when a student reaches out for help or needs academic accommodations for a mental health crisis. The university offers voluntary mental health first aid training to anyone in the campus community – and registration for the program has picked up this month.

The students are also concerned about whether their classmates are aware of CAPS. Lemma is also a first-year student and says he hadn't even heard of the on-campus counseling services until about a week ago.

“There's so many people out there who don't even know what it is, where it is, and who still need this kind of help,” Lemma said.

Austin was able to see someone at CAPS as a walk-in on her first visit, but the university's counseling service is not set up for long-term care. Austin said she found that disappointing.

“In reality, it just feels like they're there as like a middleman to go to someone else,” Austin said. “And I don't have time to go to someone else.”

University officials say, like at many colleges, the primary mission of the on-campus mental health services is to offer short-term counseling, according to an email from a UNC spokeswoman.

The Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Amy Johnson told faculty earlier this week she wants to dispel any myths that students have to wait to get first-time appointments.

Johnson said CAPS is continuing to offer urgent services, regular in-takes from walk-in appointments and group therapy sessions. Students in immediate distress can reach a counselor through a 24-hour phone hotline.

“It’s only for students who say, ‘Really what I want is ongoing, brief, therapy one-on-one,’ — for that there is about a week’s wait,” Johnson said in a meeting with the faculty executive committee.

Faculty at the meeting discussed the findings of a 2019 report by a university mental health task force and ongoing efforts to meet its recommendations. For example, last year the university began a multicultural health program to better serve students of color, and has since secured sustainable funding for the program.

As the university has expanded its mental health services, the need is also becoming more urgent. UNC-Chapel Hill’s counseling service has seen a rise in demand over the past year that coincides with a nationwide healthcare staffing shortage. The university is currently hiring for two more permanent counselors and additional short-term mental health staff to handle an even more acute need for counseling this month as students mourn the recent deaths.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.

Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.